Kim Kardashian was robbed at gunpoint in Paris over the weekend, and so now it's time for the cycle of internet outrage: First people make a series of insensitive and inappropriate comments, and then other people make a show of denouncing those comments. This time around, though, a disturbing pattern is emerging from both the jokers and the defenders: Nearly everyone seems to assume that women (and especially famous women) are public property, their value contingent on who (or what) they are to someone else.
The attack on Kardashian and the ensuing media narrative is just the latest instance where a celebrity woman was targeted, assaulted, and then mocked or admonished. Vitalii Sediuk, a man who bills himself as a “prankster”, has made physically assaulting famous women his calling card. He went after Kardashian in Paris, trying to kiss her backside before security interfered. That kind of sexualised attack is sexual assault — something Sediuk denies. “Sexual assault is basically rape,” he told the BBC. “Did I rape anyone? No. I disagree. It's not sexual assault.”
During Milan Fashion Week at the end of September, Sediuk also assaulted model Gigi Hadid. Hadid gave him a swift elbow to the jaw, and a video of the attack went viral. But instead of empathising with how terrifying it must have been to be walking to your car only to be grabbed by a stranger, many — including professional entertainment writers — either laughed at the incident or even scolded Hadid. "Not Model Behavior: Gigi Hadid aggressively lashes out and ELBOWS fan in the FACE after he tries to pick her up," read a headline in The Sun.
Kardashian’s robbery is getting similar treatment, despite what sounds like a truly harrowing ordeal: Five men dressed as police officers and carrying guns allegedly tied her up and gagged her before taking $13 million in jewellery; she reportedly begged for her life. While the normal response would be to say, “My god, that sounds awful,” the usual nobodies on Twitter decided to mock her by making comments about her butt, saying she’s an attention-monster, and joking that she doesn’t have talent.
Yes, Kardashian is famous for being famous; she isn’t a Nobel laureate or a great talent of any kind. What she is, though, is human — something that’s apparently too easy to forget when we think of famous women as walking, talking Barbie dolls, not as whole people who breathe, eat, and get really scared when you point a gun in their face. Kardashian is now back in New York. The jewellery she lost is mostly replaceable. But her sense of physical safety and the feeling of security that every human being deserves is surely shaken. She underwent a real trauma. But because we're used to seeing her body, and because she's a star partially for her sex appeal, there’s a pervasive sense that she’s a little less than human, that what happens to her body is subject to public mockery because her body is public property. She's a thing, not a person.
Even Kardashian's defenders seem to come from the vantage point that she belongs to someone other than herself, although they reach a different conclusion. “People making jokes about @KimKardashian tonight would do well to remember that she’s a mother, a daughter, a wife, a friend. Be nice or shut up,” tweeted TV show host James Corden. “Just heard about @KimKardashian being robbed @gun point. So glad she’s okay. Kim you’re a, wife, mother, sister & praying woman #Godsgotyou,” wrote comedian and actress Sherri Shepherd.
It’s a nice sentiment, sort of. But the concern wasn’t that a woman herself was tied up, robbed, and traumatised. It was that the woman in question belonged to someone else — she was someone’s wife, someone’s mother.
When a woman’s worth is contingent on her relationships with others, it makes clear that a woman herself isn’t enough. She’s not valuable just for existing as a human being; she’s valuable because a man has deemed her worthy or because she’s fulfilling a socially sanctioned role. These are the same reasons Kardashian is targeted for ridicule: She’s deemed not valuable enough for basic bodily autonomy and physical safety because she’s publicly sexy, because her body is a thing we look at, not a universe she alone inhabits.
This view of women — that our value is relational, that our bodies are public — is the undercurrent of so many of the more terrible things we endure. It’s why what a rape victim was wearing, or whether she was sexually active, or whether she had been drinking remain questions we still ask and ways we shift the blame from those who use their bodies to violate others onto those whose bodies are violated. It’s why the rights to abortion and even birth control are politically contentious — they put reproduction squarely in the hands of women, and some think that because our bodies are public goods, that’s simply too much power for women to hold exclusively. It’s why so many women are shamed for what we wear, or what our bodies look like, or in what contexts we have children (or forgo having children), or how (and how often, and with how many people) we have sex.
Kim Kardashian happens to be a person whose celebrity I care very little about. I don't watch her show or follow her on social media or even really understand why she’s famous. But I know she’s human. I know something terrible happened to her and that she must have been scared. I know that no one, famous or not, wife or not, mother or not, deserves to experience that kind of trauma, and no one deserves one of the worst moments of their life to be held up for public jeering or implicitly told that she only matters because she matters to someone else. Isn’t that all we need to know?
This story was first published on ELLE.com.au.